November 28, 1994 12:00 PM

AT the end of his second freckle-faced season on Family Affair, 7-year-old Johnny Whitaker made an appearance at a shopping mall to promote a line of clothing named after him. Twenty-five thousand people showed up. “My parents tried to tell me that it wouldn’t always be like this,” recalls Whitaker, one of eight children of a Mormon junior high school teacher. “That was hard to believe.”

But it was true. For a few years after the series—and his job as Jody—ended in 1971, work was still plentiful for Whitaker, who became a staple waif on such shows as Green Acres, Bewitched, Bonanza and Gunsmoke. But in 1976 he was devastated by the news that his Family Affair costar Anissa Jones had been found dead in her California home of a drug overdose at 18. During the run of the show, he says, “we were like brother and sister. When I heard she was dead, my heart fell to my toes.”

The tragedy marked a turning point for him. “I’d been working for the past 15 years,” says Whitaker, who made his performing debut at 3 in his church choir. “I needed to stop and think about what I wanted and what was going on in my life.”

He spent the next two years in Portugal as a Mormon missionary. When he returned to the States, the acting offers had dried up, so he enrolled at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, earning a B.A. in theater arts. There were other adjustments as well: In 1988 he and his wife of four years, former talent agent Symbria Wright, split. She later married his best friend.

Now the head of a Los Angeles computer consulting firm whose clients include Aaron Spelling Productions, Whitaker, 35, would like nothing better than to return to the limelight. “I’ve been all over the world, met the President, and I can still get good seats at restaurants,” he says. “If I had another chance to be famous, I’d jump at it.”

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